European Arabs have a distinct view of the region

Saudi university student checks out a website on his computer at a cafe in Riyadh.

Like many children of Arab descent in 1990s Europe, I grew up with Al Jazeera TV and Arab entertain­ment and cooking pro­grammes. They were practically the background music at home. It was the age before tablets and smartphones.
I loved hearing different ver­sions of spoken Arabic. The images that shaped my views of the Middle East and North Africa region were largely male and overwhelmingly violent — bomb­ings, corpses, rivers of blood on the streets, executions — but also domestic violence and many scenes of shouting people in films.
Until my early 20s, I did not realise the cumulative effect of those experiences on my percep­tions and I lived almost like a carefree European.
Then, as an Erasmus Pro­gramme exchange student in the Netherlands in December 2010, I saw the Arab world aflame on Facebook. The images on my computer screen made me realise that I was unprepared — despite those childhood images — for a messy groundswell for change. Growing up in Belgium, despite those childhood on-screen en­counters with the Arab world, I was unprepared for a movement that appeared to have bubbled up from the bottom.
The memories resurfaced during the Arab Conference at Harvard last November. It was billed as the largest pan-Arab conference in North America and it brought together approximately 1,300 students and professionals to discuss issues with the region’s most prominent politicians, business people and civil society leaders.
The 2017 conference aimed, as its organisers said, to combat the “reductive imagination surround­ing the Arab world that dimin­ishes it to a geography of violence and failure.”
At my session, many people about my age asked why I was leading a project to build an app for Arab youth. I sensed various levels of emotion across the spec­trum of hope. As an entrepreneur, I understand the essence of action and I believe optimism is probably the biggest call to action.
To serve fellow Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa region, I chose optimism to per­ceive the possible. Change, like death, is a certainty. It is bound to happen. It might be wise to manage it. Entrepreneurs build on the hope that people will leverage new realities once they become aware of the possibilities.
I’m not a fan of the word “em­powerment” because it focuses too much on external agency and yet I firmly believe that people make their own decisions to invest time and attention on ideas and products that fill a gap.
The need for digital Arabic content is societal. It will help diversify our economies and it is key to building a knowledge economy. It is also a way to feed the hunger for information among the increasingly restless and mo­bile millennial generation.
My recent travels throughout the region showed the depth of the desire in young people for information that’s relevant to their reality and that can also be transformational with respect to their reality.
As a European Arab, born and bred in Belgium, I am conscious of the advantages I’ve had. I’ve had the freedom to know, to act and to decide. This must be leveraged and shared with other young Arabs, in the Arab world and beyond.
A community can only grow and prosper by determining how it thinks of itself, how it wants to think of itself and how it wants to be seen.
There is no reason for the Arab world not to aim to be the best.
Khadija Hamouchi
, a social entrepreneur, is founder of SEJAAL, an initiative that is building an app for young people. She has received six international awards, including Stanford Business and Innovation Fellow, Morocco’s African Entrepreneurship Award and San Francisco’s Parisoma Accelerator Programme.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.